The General, co-directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, has a special place in the pantheon of silent film classics. Released in 1926, the film not only showcases Keaton's extraordinary talents as an actor and director but is also a testament to the pivotal role of its non-human star: the train.
At the center of this comedic masterpiece is a locomotive called "The General". More than just a prop, the train is integral to the film's narrative and Keaton's innovative stunt work. Set during the American Civil War, the story follows Johnnie Gray (played by Keaton), a train engineer whose two loves are his locomotive, The General, and his girlfriend, Annabelle Lee. The plot is set in motion when the Union Army spies, led by Captain Anderson, steal his beloved train, setting off a daring and humorous chase.
“The General” becomes a character in its own right, central to the film's action and comedy. Keaton's interaction with the train showcases a blend of physical comedy and technical skill, making the locomotive an extension of his character's emotions and intentions.
Keaton's insistence on authenticity led to the use of real locomotives and tracks, adding a level of realism rarely seen in films of the era. The precision with which the train sequences were filmed remains a remarkable achievement in film history. Keaton performed his stunts, many of which involved real danger, giving the film an authenticity that still resonates with audiences today.
- Despite its current status as a classic, "The General" was not a success upon its initial release. It received mixed reviews and was a box-office disappointment.
- The film's fictionalized plot was based on Lieut. William Pittenger's Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure (aka The Great Locomotive Chase), a true Civil War story of the daring raid/seizure of a Confederate train near Atlanta in April 1862 by a group of about two dozen Union spies.
- The film includes a spectacular scene in which a locomotive drives onto a burning bridge and it collapses with it. This scene was filmed in the woods near Cottage Grove, Oregon. In the fighting in this scene, Keaton enlisted about 500 members of the Oregon National Guard, who advanced first from left to right in Unionist uniforms, and then from right to left in Southern uniforms. This scene is considered the most expensive scene in the silent film era.